Windows XP: End of an Era, End of an Error

So we are now officially living in a post-Windows XP era:

After 12 years, support for Windows XP ended April 8, 2014. There will be no more security updates or technical support for the Windows XP operating system. It is very important that customers and partners migrate to a modern operating system such as Windows 8.1. Customers moving to a modern operating system will benefit from dramatically enhanced security, broad device choice for a mobile workforce, higher user productivity, and a lower total cost of ownership through improved management capabilities.

Support for Office 2003 also ended on April 8, 2014.

And just in case you didn’t get the message, Microsoft spells out what this means a little more explicitly:

It means you should take action. After April 8, 2014, Microsoft will no longer provide security updates or technical support for Windows XP. Security updates patch vulnerabilities that may be exploited by malware and help keep users and their data safer. PCs running Windows XP after April 8, 2014, should not be considered to be protected, and it is important that you migrate to a current supported operating system – such as Windows 8.1 – so you can receive regular security updates to protect their computer from malicious attacks.

This is little more than polite blackmail: if you don’t upgrade, your systems will become infected, you will lose data, and your reputation may well be ruined as a result. The stakes are incredibly high: the Microsoft-sponsored study I wrote about last week puts the global cost of flaws in Microsoft’s software at around $500 billion for 2014 alone.

And yet despite the astonishing magnitude of the threat, laid out by Microsoft itself again and again, in various ways, people still stick with Windows XP. Really, there is no greater condemnation of Windows XP’s successors than the fact that huge swathes of Microsoft’s user base simply don’t want to upgrade.

Shockingly, that applies to the UK government, too. Of course, they at least realise that they can’t simply carry on using Windows XP without at least nominal protection, but the price they pay for their stubborn refusal to move off XP is high:

The UK and Dutch governments have paid Microsoft multiple millions to extend support for Windows XP past the 8 April cutoff date.

The UK extension cost £5.5m but is only valid for a year, after which public-sector users will have to be moved to newer software.

The Crown Commercial Service (CCS), a new central purchasing agency within the Cabinet Office, paid the US software company to provide important security software updates for Windows XP, Office 2003 and Exchange 2003 for the entire UK public sector.

Think about that: the UK government is paying over £5 million to be able to keep using software that came out in 2001, and whose obsolescence was announced in 2007, which gave the UK government years to plan for its replacement. The Guardian article above even quotes an effusive government spokesperson saying they were “very grateful” for the deal – grateful, that is, for the privilege of being allowed to pay even more money to use Microsoft’s creaking software. Talk about slaves kissing their chains...

What’s absurd about this recent payment is that one of the arguments against moving to open source is that it would involve “extra costs” in terms of retraining etc. But nobody ever mentions the extra costs of continuing to use closed-source software. And here I’m just talking about the obvious ones, like extra payments, not the hidden ones caused by using buggy, malware-ridden software that I discussed last week.

The latest episode of waste by the UK government in continuing to pay for Microsoft software when it could use open source is disgraceful. The final ending of the Windows XP era is the perfect opportunity to break free of proprietary lock-in. Shifting to free software would not only cost nothing in terms of software acquisition, but save again and again when it came to upgrades, which would always be free. It would save on the kind of stupid and unnecessary payments that the UK government has just made to Microsoft. And it would save on the huge losses caused by the malware plagues that feed on Microsoft’s software.

The same goes for business and general users: if there was ever a time to kick the Microsoft habit, it is now, when Windows XP, arguably the last popular Microsoft operating system, is finally retired. But of course, there’s a huge problem – one that I’ve touched on many times in this column: the lack of support by hardware manufacturers. Even if you wanted to buy PCs and servers running free software, it’s often hard to find suppliers.

That, of course, creates a vicious circle: because it’s hard to source hardware that runs free software well, few people buy it. Which means there’s little incentive for manufacturers to spend much time or money catering for this sector. Here’s a petition calling for greater customer choice when it comes to buying a computer – specifically, the ability to choose the software that installed on it. That would be good, but while we’re waiting, there’s another solution that’s much easier to implement: the European Union (and ideally all the European member states) should make systems running open source operating systems and applications the default for their future purchases.

As I’ve written, the UK government is currently considering opting for ODF as one of its core open standards. That’s a highly welcome but relatively small step towards the final end-point. The UK government needs to go much further so as to avoid ridiculous situations like the current one that sees it using taxpayers' money to pay for something that it should have got rid of years ago. Time to end not just the Windows XP era, but the Windows XP error.

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Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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